The South Head Shule controversy

South Head Shule is in Sydney, Australia. It has had a Chabad Rabbi for 30+ years. He is Rabbi Bentzion Milecki, who I recall from School Days at Yeshivah College in Melbourne. I also recall that he got straight A’s in his Year 12, and is very bright. His father used to have a well-known health food store in Carlisle Street, also in Melbourne. Indeed, when I returned from studying in Israel, many moons ago, I used to pick up Rabbi Milecki from his apartment in Melbourne, to give a Gemorra Shiur, in the board room of Mizrachi.

I have seen interchanges, back and forth. It would seem that the issue of a “younger Rabbi” is a concern for the President, and most members. It is claimed that membership is falling, and they seek “renewal” with a younger Rabbi, to arrest this claimed decline.

Whoever was in charge of South Head when Rabbi Milecki was hired may have let their community down. The contract was for a salary, which if true, could be described as ‘astronomical’ . In addition, they agreed that disputes surrounding the Rabbi’s tenure would be dealt with according to Halacha.

The issue reached a stalemate.

The Court in Australia upheld the view that Halacha was consideration of the contract, and Rabbi Milecki’s disembowelment from his position was considered illegal by the secular court which upheld the initial contract requiring the Halacha to determine the outcome.

In the meanwhile, there were all sorts of legal attempts at cutting off Rabbi Milecki from his position. Rabbi Milecki was quick to defend himself on many occasions. Rabbi Milecki claimed that he is entitled to tenure on the basis of Chazoko, and whilst there have apparently been attempts to pay Rabbi Milecki out, it would seem that he sees himself as the main Halachic presence in any new arrangement, whereas most members wish to pay him out and retain him in an emeritus role, removed from decision making.

I was asked why I haven’t stated my view. In essence, I was waiting for this issue to play out. It seems that it has, with the Shule now sadly in liquidation.

My view is:

Where any community hires a Chabad Rabbi, they need to realise that it is not a regular appointment. Any Chabad Rabbi around my age or older will have received a blessing from the last Lubavitcher Rebbe נ׳ע. As such, their position is interpreted as one of an emissary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This status is higher and more cogent than any contract or position in the eyes of such a Rabbi.

Ironically, nobody expressed the view that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was too old for his position! He was, however,  an expert in relating to people of all ages. This is the key. In addition, even when older and more feeble, he kept up a punishing timetable of learning and consultation with which a younger person would have struggled.

If a Chabad Rabbi, who is hired by a community, as opposed to running his own Chabad house, is asked to move on because ostensibly the younger generation is apparently not relating to him or his leadership is losing its impact, and that Chabad Rabbi has received blessings for success from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, then there is little chance, since the Rabbi is “connected” to his Rebbe, that he will give up his post. Doing so, is an abandonment tantamount to cancelling his position as an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe! Being an emissary is the highest status for a Chossid.

Notwithstanding all the above, there is, in my view a higher imperative. That higher imperative is the possibility of a Chillul Hashem, or a Zilzul (cheapening) of the status of a Rabbi (and indeed Chabad).

The tax-free salary in this case can be argued to be beyond the pale and not conducive to כבוד התורה.

Most importantly, a Rabbi should not find himself in a situation where he has lost most his congregation. These might still be members, but there has been a process of alienation and loss of real authority. If this occurs, then there should be consideration of compensation/pay out in keeping with the years of faithful service. Following this, a Rabbi should leave quietly rather than fight a battle for the minority.

In short we have a clash of cultures: a western style appointment to a position vs a Rabbinic appointment vs a Chabad Rabbinic appointment.

My view is that Rabbi Milecki should start an actual Chabad House of his own, in South Head. They might daven in his house initially. If he has support, he will acquire premises and he can function in this more traditional Chabad way where the Rabbi is CEO and unimpeachable except in the worst circumstance. In such an arrangement, he will have life tenure and pass the baton on to one of his children after 120.

I contend that he needs to forget about South Head per se because a person should not force himself on a Kehilla. The fact that many people came together and davened elsewhere should indicate that his time was definitely up.

Melbourne has other examples of Rabbis who appear not to enjoy support. Rabbi Riesenberg of Central cannot be dismissed, as per the constitution he apparently oversaw. Whilst he is legally correct, perhaps he should re-ask himself if he is raising the crown of Torah by staying in his position, as opposed to a pay out and moving elsewhere.

My former Shule, Elwood, did the right thing with Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick. Rabbi Gutnick also offered the honourable thing and stepped aside for an incumbent youth Rabbi. The incumbent has plenty of work to do if success is measured by paid members and attendance on a Shabbos. We wish him success!

Ironically, my mind goes back to Rabbi Silberman ז׳ל who ironically used to be the South Head Rabbi, and then retired to the Gold Coast, where he was very careful not to step on the toes of the Rabbi of Surfers Paradise (also from Chabad). Rabbi Silberman managed to move sideways creating a Kiddush Hashem.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s